Special Studies, November 9, 2012
By Paul Emrath, Ph.D.
Economics and Housing Policy Group
National Association of Home Builders
Report available to the public as a courtesy of HousingEconomics.com
In the course of their business, home builders and remodelers buy many different products— ranging from basic lumber and many other wood products, to electrical and plumbing fixtures, a variety of materials used to finish various areas of the house, appliances, and even tools.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recently surveyed both its single-family builders and its remodelers, asking them who’s most often responsible for choosing these products and, in a separate question, where these products are purchased irrespective of who chooses them (it turns out that, even when they’re not the ones driving the product choice, builders and remodelers often know where the product is being purchased). The basic findings include the following:
- Well over half of the time, builders and remodelers themselves have the greatest influence on product selection.
- In remodeling, several products are chosen most often by the customer: e.g., appliances, flooring, lighting, countertops and cabinets.
- Subcontractors are most likely to make the choice for a few select products like electrical and HVAC equipment.
- In general, the most common sources for products used in home building and remodeling are lumber yards, wholesale distributors, and specialty retailers.
- The channels of distribution that are less often used in general are nevertheless important sources for particular products.
- Trusses, cabinets and countertops are often purchased direct from the factory.
- Manufacturer’s distribution centers have a large share of the market for paint.
- Home improvement centers have a dominant share of the market (over 40 percent) for hand and power tools.
- Twenty-five percent of the builders and 44 percent of the remodelers who buy their tools at home improvement centers also purchase at least one other product while there.
Several fairly obvious conclusions emerge from these results. First, because builders and remodelers themselves most often control the choice of product, manufacturers should be able to market their products most effectively by targeting builders and remodelers directly. And because builders and remodelers go to home improvement centers so often to buy tools, home improvement centers should have a good opportunity to market many of the other products they sell to builders and remodelers.
The following sections describe the survey and discuss the results in more detail. Complete tabulation of the survey results, along with the questionnaires used to collect the data, are available in the “Additional Resources” box at the top of this article when viewed on NAHB’s web page.
Builders and Remodelers
NAHB’s builder members are divided into several categories. In its most recent member census, 56 percent of NAHB’s builder members say their primary business is building single-family homes, and 28 percent say it’s residential remodeling. So together single-family builders and residential remodelers account for 84 percent of all NAHB’s builder members, with the rest divided among categories such as multifamily or commercial construction, land development, etc.
NAHB canvasses its single-family builders once a month in the survey for the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), and its residential remodelers once a quarter for the NAHB Remodeling Market Index (RMI) survey. Both surveys often include special questions on a topic of current interest to the industry. The October 2012 HMI and 3rd-quarter 2012 RMI surveys both contained special questions on where building products are purchased, and who has the greatest influence over product selection. Four hundred builders and 447 remodelers responded to these questions.
One thing the endeavor demonstrated is that builders and remodelers buy a lot of different products. The HMI/RMI surveys asked about 24 distinct product categories, many of which were fairly general in nature:
A large majority of both builders and remodelers reported purchasing products in all 24 categories, despite differences in the nature of their businesses. Individual remodeling projects can be considerably smaller and more limited in scope than building an entire new structure and the overall size of the operations differ, depending on the firm’s specialty. In the NAHB member census, median volume of business for firms who classified themselves as single-family builders was $1.56 million in 2011—almost triple the $536,000 reported by residential remodelers.
However, like the typical NAHB remodeler, the typical NAHB single-family builder is a very small business by many standards. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s size standards, the ceiling for a small residential construction business (specializing either in new construction or remodeling) is $33.5 million per year.
The October HMI and 3rd-quarter RMI surveys both asked “Who has the greatest influence on product selection?” Although this varied from product to product, there were also some general tendencies that can be summarized by averaging the responses over all 24 building product categories (Figure 1).
The most obvious tendency is that builders and remodelers most often control the choice of building products themselves, although cases where the choice is driven by customers or subcontractors are also relatively common. Cases of where an architect or supplier controls the decision occur but are infrequent, especially in new construction. In remodeling, about 16 percent of the time either the architect or a supplier has the strongest influence on the selection of engineered lumber and trusses. For other building products, purchases driven by an architect or supplier are considerable less common even than this.
Compared to new construction, customers are somewhat more likely to have the ultimate say when a product is chosen for residential remodeling—a logical result, given that a share of single-family homes are built spec, before a specific customer is even identified (although, even in these cases, builders may offer options on items like appliances).
The influence of the customer varies considerably depending on the type of building product being purchased. Figure 2 shows products where a remodelers’ customer makes the choice at least one-third of the time. Appliances are at the top of the chart, chosen by customers almost three quarters of the time in remodeling projects. Of the other items in Figure 2, several (carpeting, tile, countertops) fall into the category of finishing materials that are used to cover surfaces, and for which the decorative qualities are usually quite important. The products most often chosen by the customer are generally the same in home building and remodeling, although the percentages in home building tend to be only about half as large.
Compared to remodeling, subcontractors are more likely to influence product selection in new construction. Part of the reason may be that builders simply tend to use more subs. In the July 2012 HMI survey, builders reported using an average of 25 subcontractors per home. In the 4th quarter 2009 RMI survey, remodelers on average reported using a total of 18 different subs over the course of an entire year.
The products most often chosen by subcontractors in home building are electrical, HVAC, wallboard, and insulation (Figure 3). The top sub-chosen products are similar in remodeling. The greatest difference is a relatively modest one for masonry & masonry supplies, where subs choose the product 28 percent of the time in remodeling, and 24 percent of the time in new single-family construction.
Common Places to Buy
In addition to questions on who controls the choice of building products, the HMI/RMI surveys also asked where products are purchased irrespective of who purchases them. In prior surveys, when given a choice simply to say subcontractors purchased a product, builders very often checked that option. On reflection, however, it seemed that builders may sometimes know where their subs go for materials—as builders manage scheduling, try to control quality, and eventually simply become familiar with the tendencies of regularly-used subs. In remodeling, where products are more often chosen by customers, a similar conjecture applies—i.e., remodelers may sometimes know where their customers are going to purchase the products. In some cases, remodelers may recommend particular sellers of lighting, appliances, etc.
These conjectures turned out to be true. When the questions were broadened to ask where products were purchased irrespective of who actually purchases them, the vast majority of builders and remodelers were able to supply definite answers.
In general, there are three major channels of distribution for residential building products—with roughly one quarter of the business going to lumbers yards, wholesale distributors, and specialty retailers each, at least when averaged over all 24 products in the survey (Figure 4). The remaining one-fourth of the business is divided among a handful of less common sources for materials, and builders and remodelers who don’t know where their subs or customers go to buy certain products. At this broad level, the picture is similar in both home building and remodeling, but again it varies based on the type of product purchased.
For basic lumber products and house wrap, lumber yards have three quarters of the business or more (Figure 5). Nearly 60 percent of the time, lumber yards are also the source for trim and other millwork. Lumber yards get about two-thirds of the business in trusses purchased for remodeling, but only half when trusses are purchased for new single-family construction, as new home builders tend to buy trusses direct from the factory. Siding and windows & doors are each purchased from lumber yards about 40 percent of the time (Figure 5).
Wholesale distributors are the source for one-third to slightly over 40 percent of the plumbing fixtures, electrical, roofing, wallboard, masonry, lighting, HVAC equipment, and ceramic tile used in single-family home building. These are also the products most often purchased from wholesalers for residential remodeling projects, although, with the exception of roofing and masonry, remodelers tend to buy products from wholesale distributors slightly less often than builders do (Figure 6).
For most of the products shown in Figure 6, wholesale distributors are the most common channel of distribution. The exceptions are lighting and ceramic tile, each of which is purchased from specialty retailers slightly more often (by both single-family builders and remodelers).
Besides lighting and ceramic tile, five other products covered by the survey are purchased from specialty retailers over one-third of the time in single-family construction. These are carpeting, other (i.e., not carpeting or tile) flooring, countertops, appliances, and paint (Figure 7). In each case, remodelers rely on specialty retailers somewhat more often than builders do. Also in each case, specialty retailers are the number one channel of distribution for the product.
Tools from Home Improvement Centers & Other Special Cases
Differences between home builders and remodelers are most apparent in some of the (generally) less common channels of distribution. On average (over the 24 building products covered in the surveys), builders are somewhat more likely than remodelers to use manufacturer’s distribution centers, and over twice as likely to buy products direct from the factory. Remodelers, on the other hand, are nearly twice as likely to buy products from home improvement centers (Figure 8).
Home improvements centers are an interesting special case. They have a dominant (at least 40 percent) share of the market for tools purchased by both builders and remodelers (Figure 9), but only a minor share each of the 23 other products captured in the HMI/RMI surveys. Yet, home improvement centers typically offer most if not all of these other products. Because builders and remodelers are both in home improvement centers so often to purchase tools, it would seem home improvement centers have a good opportunity to market and perhaps increase their share of sales to builders and remodelers in other product categories.
This may be happening to some extent. Twenty-five percent of the builders and 44 percent of the remodelers who buy their tools at home improvement centers also purchase at least one other product while there. Over 10 percent of builders who buy tools at a home improvement center also buy lighting there, and the same is true of appliances. Over 10 percent of remodelers who buy tools at a home improvement center also buy each of the following products there: sawn lumber, plywood & OSB, trim & other millwork, house wrap, insulation, wallboard, lighting, electrical and appliances.
The aforementioned trusses and cabinets are the products single-family builders most often buy direct from the factory (about one-fourth of the time). In residential remodeling, trusses and cabinets are purchased direct from the factory roughly 13 and 19 percent of the time, respectively. Buying countertops direct from the factory is also a relatively common practice (17 percent of the time in home building, 13 percent in remodeling).
Manufacturer’s distribution centers have a little over 10 percent of the market for masonry, HVAC equipment, plumbing fixtures, and appliances in home building; a little under 10 percent of the market for these items in remodeling. Manufacturer’s distribution centers are a particularly important channel of distribution for paint, where they have 13 percent of the market in remodeling, and 20 percent in new single-family construction.
Complete tables showing where each of the 24 products tends to be purchased are available in the pdf documents listed at the top of the web page for this article.
Summary and Conclusion
In the course of their work, builders and remodelers buy many products, either directly or indirectly through agents such as subcontractors. Recent NAHB surveys collected information from both single- family builders and remodelers on who’s most often responsible for choosing products, and where the products tend to be purchased. Even when builders and remodelers don’t choose the products themselves, they often know where the products are being purchased.
The survey results show that, irrespective of who actually makes the purchase, it is the builders and remodelers themselves who most often influence product selection and therefore should most often be the prime targets for manufacturers looking to effectively market building products.
Exceptions to the general rule include several products (appliances, flooring, lighting, countertops and cabinets) that are often chosen directly by the customer, especially in remodeling projects. There are also products chosen most often by subcontractors, but these are limited to electrical and HVAC equipment and ducts.
The results also showed that, in general, the most common places to buy products for new single-family construction and remodeling are lumber yards, wholesale distributors, and specialty retailers. Not surprisingly, lumber yards are the places builders and remodelers most often go for sawn lumber, many other lumber products, and house wrap. Lumber yards are also the places builders and remodelers most often go to purchase trusses. In addition, a fairly large share (25 percent) of single-family builders buy trusses direct from the factory.
Wholesale distributors are the places builders and remodelers most often go to buy plumbing fixtures, electrical, roofing, wallboard, masonry and HVAC equipment. Specialty retailers are the places builders and remodelers most often go to buy carpeting, countertops, appliances, lighting, ceramic tile, flooring other than tile or carpet, paint and cabinets.
Besides trusses, it also fairly common for single-family builders and remodelers to purchase cabinets and countertops direct from the factory. Manufacturer’s distribution centers are a particularly important channel of distribution for paint.
Home improvement centers have over 40 percent of the market for tools purchased by single- family builders and remodelers, but only a minor share of the market for the other products covered by the HMI and RMI surveys, despite the fact that home improvement centers typically sell most if not all of these products.
Nevertheless, 25 percent of builders and 44 percent of remodelers who buy tools from home improvement centers also stop to buy at least one other product while there. This indicates that home improvement have made some progress in selling products other than tools to builders and remodelers, but the low overall market shares also suggest that there is more progress to be made.
Download the Full Article (PDF)
HMI: Special Questions on Purchasing Materials (PDF)
RMI: Special Questions on Purchasing Questions (PDF)
See other Special Studies